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Sources: David Steward, 785-532-1585, steward@k-state.edu;
and John Handke, john19@k-state.edu; and Lauren Winnen, lwinnen@k-state.edu
News release prepared by: Greg Tammen, 785-532-2535, gtammen@k-state.edu

Friday, April 15, 2011

SOLVING A PROBLEM WELL: ENGINEERING CLASS SHOWCASING OIL-CAPPING MODEL AT ALL-UNIVERSITY OPEN HOUSE

MANHATTAN -- A forklift, 200 gallons of water, seven feet of epoxied PVC pipe and buckets of sand in various sizes may seem like an unusual recipe for learning. But for a class of civil engineers at Kansas State University, this mix could mean a solution to stopping a future environmental disaster.

David Steward, a professor of civil engineering, teaches a course on hydraulic engineering, a field that involves control of water. Each semester his class studies a recent hydraulic phenomenon that made news and changed lives. This spring the class tackled Deepwater Horizon, the BP-owned offshore drilling rig that in April 2010, exploded and released an estimated 35,000-60,000 barrels of oil per day for months into the Gulf of Mexico.

The students -- all engineering majors -- designed and built an apparatus that uses sand particles to stop a mock oil well from leaking. The device is similar to the mechanism that was used to eventually plug the oil well created by Deepwater Horizon.

"Our goal was to simulate the clogging of the Deepwater Horizon, so essentially trying to clog a well," Steward said. The idea behind this project, he said, is that these future engineers can see the problem and experiment with a solution, giving them hands-on experience and problem solving skills in this area should a similar disaster happen in the future.

"I really like the idea of the project because the engineers spent three months trying to figure out how to plug the oil spill. This is a really interesting way to learn about it and see how it was done," said Lauren Winnen, a senior from Lakewood, Colo., one of the students in the hydraulic engineering class.

Winnen, who is also the civil engineering chair of K-State's All-University Open House, has arranged for the oil-capping model to be shown and demonstrated at the university's open house, which runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 16. The model will be in the courtyard area between Rathbone Hall and Durland Hall, and is an opportunity for the public to see how this engineering feat was accomplished.

The project -- from conception to design -- was done entirely by the class, Steward said.

The 34 students were divided into groups of three or four and given a few weeks to design their own oil-capping apparatus. The only requirement was that designs included a top kill and bottom kill mechanism. A kill mechanism is a procedure where a large quantity of drilling fluid -- sand in this case -- is dumped into an oil well, creating enough pressure to smother the leak.

After each group presented their plans, the class chose the best features from each team's blueprint to include in the final design. Calculations were then rerun to check for errors. The final apparatus stands 7 feet tall -- several times smaller than the submerged structure that was used to plug the oil well in the Gulf. The K-State apparatus was built April 11 and tested April 13.

"We used the tank full of water to generate hydraulic head to simulate oil shooting up out of the ocean floor. Then we dropped sifted sand particles in the top and bottom of the apparatus to plug the well," said John Handke, a senior in civil engineering, Topeka, and the build coordinator for the class.

By using different sizes of sifted sand, students observed how particles settled; which sizes worked better; whether a top kill mechanism or bottom kill mechanism was more effective; and compared the test results to their calculations.

"As civil engineers we design solutions to solve a problem," Steward said. "For finding a solution to the challenge that was presented to them this semester, I think the class did a very good job."

The apparatus has been added to the hydraulic engineering lab and will be used in future classes. It joins other models created by previous classes, including a wave tank that simulates tsunamis and a water hammer that replicates a geyser.